A story worth your while

This is a great story about a Catholic high school teacher who was honored by the school for his work with students and the community. This is the part that grabbed me:

What Mr. Skerl is probably best known for, however, is the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society, an organization he started in 2003 that is now the largest extracurricular activity at the school, with 300 members. That level of participation is extraordinary, since membership is restricted to juniors and seniors—nearly half of all juniors and seniors are members. What the members do is act as pallbearers for those who have no one to carry their caskets, a category that encompasses not just the homeless and indigent but people whose family and friends are too few or infirm to do that.

What a wonderful idea. In addition to the services provided to the dead and their families, this provides a wonderful benefit for the students. Too often our culture hides young people from death and dying. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I lived for some time in a parsonage where the backyard was a cemetery. That, combined with the fact that my mom’s family was in the mortuary business, gave me a somewhat unique perspective on death and dying. It was invaluable.

It seems like a great idea for a Lutheran church or school to start up such a society for the community.


Comments

A story worth your while — 68 Comments

  1. Carl,

    You are the one who brought up “Romanism” in your posts. It is precisely the Roman Catholic church that has transformed pagan customs into Christian ones, and perhaps that is what has happened with cremation(?). The important thing to keep in mind is that the pagan foundation is never totally eradicated–it can be overwhelmed and as “baptized” be very effective in conveying Christian truth–but only when strong teaching is continually present with it. Historically speaking, cremation does not have a Scriptural origin but a pagan one. Ultimately, your arguments boil down not to cremation but to Christian liberty. You have not successfully defended cremation (as cremation) but you have successfully defended the importance of Christian liberty, a vital topic in our time.

    I have some references, both Old and New Testaments, regarding burial–but no (positive) references regarding the burning of human bodies (though there is an important miracle in the Old Testament in which God preserved the Three Men thrown alive into the fire). See especially Joseph’s request that his body be transported back to the Promised Land–which the children of Israel dutifully did nearly half a millennium later during the Exodus(!)–as a previous generation did for the dead body of Joseph’s father Jacob (with the permission and blessing of the then-ruling Pharaoh). Clearly, cremation is extra-Scriptural (which is one of the reasons I think it deserves careful examination). Cremation has achieved the status of acceptable custom among us—this is true, as your references to the website FAQs make plain. It did not always have that status, whether in Scripture(!) or in the early church or in those four conservative Lutheran church bodies. Such a change can certainly happen over time, especially when genuine Christian freedom is allowed to inform church practices (cremation/burial is not just a personal issue).

    Is there anything in the Christian life that is “personal” in the Western (modern or post-modern) way of thinking (where personal=private and individual)? Isn’t almost everything in the Christian life something that also affects the church? We don’t think that way, do we? But isn’t that the New Testament context in which Paul forcefully teaches us about Christian freedom…not in the “personal” context, but in the context of the congregation and wider church in which the personal element (biblically understood) plays itself out?

    It is clearly possible in the West for cremation to become such a “personal” issue that it can move outside of the genuine range of biblical Christian freedom, and become Constitutional/political freedom (which in its own sphere is a great blessing from God…but not quite the same as Christian freedom). I’m not saying this is what has happened in your own arguments or in the earlier examples of posts that people have made to this site about their decisions in regard to cremation.

    This issue has been a bugaboo in the whole discussion on liturgy and church order: are we moving in the realm of political freedom in our arguments and practices, or in the realm of Scriptural/Christian/Jesus’ blood-bought freedom?

    Thanks for engaging in this discussion and I am always open to whatever you have to say.

  2. Carl,

    You–surprisingly–are sounding a little “Romanist” to me. Because the church (here the four denominations) has spoken, no Scriptural references will change my mind.

    What I would like to see on the FAQs is at least a disclaimer that cremation is not in the best tradition of the Christian Church (or the LCMS, for that matter). Everything else is fine: cremation is not a sin, cremation is a matter of Christian liberty, cremation is not in the best tradition of Christian pracitce over the centuries and continents. That kind of statement speaks the whole truth and is more of a help to us pastors who are trying to teach our people.

  3. What I would like to see on the FAQs is at least a disclaimer that cremation is not in the best tradition of the Christian Church (or the LCMS, for that matter). Everything else is fine: cremation is not a sin, cremation is a matter of Christian liberty, cremation is not in the best tradition of Christian pracitce over the centuries and continents.

    .

    Okay, that means you and Carl/Rick agree, so the argument is done, right? That’s all he’s said–as opposed to Dr. Schmidt, who says that cremation is a sin and that pastors who have buried someone who has been cremated must repent, etc.

    EJG

  4. Rev. Johnson,

    So I’m “sounding a little Romanist”? Especially after I noted: “Scriptures describe burials and cremations with neither a command nor a prohibition that would apply to Christians today”?!? Now your posts are getting desperate, not too mention looking silly.

    Surely, under sola Scriptura all it would take is a Scriptural verse to refute such a claim. And what a coup you could have, refuting the combined opinion of learned theologians in four Lutheran church bodies.

    Instead, Rev. Johnson, your posts have been a litany of sophistic tapdancing. You say cremation is not sinful, but promote a book by an author who argues that it is sinful and unchristian. You say cremation is permitted, but not approved by Scripture. You say cremation is “an area of Christian freedom,” but you would encourage it only in “some kind of catastrophic event.”

    Now the latest tapdance is that cremation is “not quite the same as Christian freedom” – or even in “the realm of Scriptural/Christian/Jesus’ blood-bought freedom” as you had said, but possibly a “Constitutional/political freedom.”

    Well, no matter how many virgules are included, your arguments are futile; the position expressed by four Lutheran synods rightfully remains. Lutherans can read the synods’ explanations, or the posts on this thread, or on Bunny Diehl’s threads, or the Confessions, or Scripture. They will see what has been written, and what has not been written; what is worthy, and what is worthless; what is consistent, and what is hypocritical; what is confessional, and what is Stephanistic nonsense.

  5. “What I would like to see on the FAQs is at least a disclaimer that cremation is not in the best tradition of the Christian Church (or the LCMS, for that matter). Everything else is fine: cremation is not a sin, cremation is a matter of Christian liberty, cremation is not in the best tradition of Christian pracitce over the centuries and continents.”

    What I would just as much like to see on the FAQs is at least an equivalent disclaimer that, unlike geocentrism, heliocentrism is not in the best tradition of the Christian Church (or the LCMS, for that matter). Everything else is fine: heliocentrism is not a sin, heliocentrism is a matter of Christian liberty, heliocentrism is not in the best tradition of Christian practice over the centuries and continents.

    Let me be clear: cremation is “permitted,” and burial is “permitted”…and sometimes cremation is demanded, e.g. a plague. But the positive teaching of the Church is always in terms of burial…it is “approved.” Burial is the normal practice…departures from the norm are certainly allowable and there is no sin in that, but that does not make cremation the norm.

    Let me be clear: heliocentrism is “permitted,” and geocentrism is “permitted”…and sometimes heliocentrism is demanded, e.g. sending probes to Mars. But the positive teaching of the Church is always in terms of geocentrism…it is “approved.” Geocentrism is the normal practice…departures from the norm are certainly allowable and there is no sin in that, but that does not make heliocentrism the norm.

  6. Carl,

    Do the Scritpures even describe cremations, as you claim?

    Could you also clarify for me your whole geocentrism/heliocentrism bit and how that contributes to the conversation about burial/cremation?

  7. Carl,

    What “learned theologians” in the LCMS are you referring to? Who wrote the FAQs? What about our “Pastoral Theology” books?

  8. Carl,

    Have I accurately *described* the historical sequence of events on the basis of the information we have written in front of us?

    Cremation has achieved the status of acceptable custom among us—this is true, as your references to the website FAQs make plain. It did not always have that status, whether in Scripture(!) or in the early church or in those four conservative Lutheran church bodies. Such a change can certainly happen over time, especially when genuine Christian freedom is allowed to inform church practices (cremation/burial is not just a personal issue).

  9. Mollie,

    Thanks for the web link. I think one of the writer’s points that deserves highlighting is the word “care.” Bodies are to be cared for, even after death. We do not have Christian liberty to harm even a person’s dead body. Cremation is about burning and crushing: burning the body and then crushing the bones. I have a hard time seeing the sense of “care” in that. Scripture is very clear on the care lavished (usually at GREAT expense) on the dead bodies of the faithful: Abraham with his wife Sarah, the children of Israel with Jacob and then Joseph, the disciples of John the Baptist with the decapitated body of John, and of course the outrageously expensive ointments put on Jesus’ Body before His burial and those intended to be put on Him on Easter morning by the women. In Scripture God both buries (Moses) and is buried (Jesus).

    And that is an important element, I think: since we are Lutherans we take the Personal Union of Christ very seriously, and I would want to confess that the Second Person of the Trinity was united with His dead Body in the grave and with His soul in Paradise (as Jesus promised the thief on the cross), the human nature (body and soul) was always hypostatically united to the divine nature–both in life and death and through all eternity. Jesus’ Body is in the grave and His soul is in heaven–but the Personal Union is not disrupted even by Christ’s death. His human life is disrupted (He’s dead) but the Personal Union remains forever. And hence, in my reading of the Scriptures, the importance of the quote from Psalm 16 by Peter on the Day of Pentecost: it was not just that the holy Body of Jesus did not see decay because He was in the tomb a short period of time (3 days = perhaps a minimum of 26 hours in Jewish reckoning) and so there is a “natural” explanation for applying this verse to Jesus. No, rather this Body did not see decay because it is the Body of the Incarnate Son of God, in Personal Union FOREVER, whether separated from the soul for three days or joined to the soul before His death and after His enlivening/resurrection.

    Bodies are to be cared for, whether living or dead: there is no Christian freedom to do otherwise.

  10. Mollie,

    To further highlight the violent nature of burning/crushing I would point any readers to the death prescribed for heretics: burning at the stake. Also think of the violent protests unleashed against another country when a flag is burned or a leader is burned in effigy. Burning/crushing is a violent act.

  11. For consideration:

    It might be a good exercise to “remove the distance” in regard to cremation/burial and ask a person whether they could bury a loved one on their own and/or whether they could burn a loved one on their own (instead of taking refuge in having professionals do this)?

    Another very important point is that in the Service of Committal from LSB at the graveside the body itself receives a blessing(!!!!) (a very beautiful one at that)–I think this lines up with the statement that we need to show care also for the dead body:

    “May God the Father, who created this body, may God the Son who by His blood redeemed this body, and may God the Holy Spirit who through Holy Baptism made this body to be His temple keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh.”

    This practice says a lot about our doctrine and confession!

  12. Something else to consider:

    There is a new hymn in LSB that fits quite well with the blessing spoken over the faithful Christian’s dead body: LSB 759 and entitled “This Body in the Grave We Lay.” For some time it was attributed to Luther but already in his life Luther stated it was not his hymn. It actually was written by Michael Weisse (who later went over to the left-wing Reformation). But this hymn is a great hymn and one that we know was sung at the graveside in Wittenberg.

    As a side note, once I get my will made out I will specify that this hymn be sung at the graveside to make a confession that fits with the Scripture readings, hymns, liturgy, creed, and prayers of the Lutheran funeral service.

    Please permit me to type out the hymn below so that the reader need not go find a hymnal:

    1. This body in the grave we lay
    There to await that solemn day
    When God Himself shall bid it rise
    To mount triumphant to the skies.

    2. And so to earth we now entrust
    What came from dust and turns to dust
    And from the dust shall rise that day
    In glorious triumph o’er decay.

    3. The soul forever lives with God,
    Who freely hath His grace bestowed
    And through His Son redeemed it here
    From ev-‘ry sin, from ev-‘ry fear.

    4. All trials and all griefs are past,
    A blessed end has come at last.
    Christ’s yoke was borne with ready will;
    Who di-eth thus is living still

    5. We have no cause to mourn or weep;
    Securely shall this body sleep
    Till Christ Himself shall death destroy
    And raise the blessed dead to joy.

    6. Then let us leave this place of rest
    And homeward turn, for they are blest
    Who heed God’s warning and prepare
    Lest death should find them unaware.

    7. So help us, Jesus, ground of faith;
    Thou hast redeemed us by Thy death
    From endless death and set us free.
    We laud and praise and worship Thee.

  13. Another comment:

    In Genesis, as Abraham is pleading in a wonderful intercessory prayer with God over the fate of Sodom, our father in the faith says of himself: “I, who am but dust and ashes.” Earlier I had stated that we do not come from ashes nor return to ashes and so had crossed that little phrase (from Cranmer) out of the Agenda book used by me in the funeral service. So, what is this phrase doing here in Abraham’s mouth?

    Throughout Scripture ashes are a symbol of repentance (see the phrase “to repent in dust and ashes,” or the phrase used of the Ninevites regarding “sackcloth and ashes”). So, Abraham is abasing Himself before the Almighty One by calling himself “dust (mortal) and ashes (a repentant sinner).”

    We come from dust and return to dust (we are mortal) AND during this earthly life of sin and death we are to constantly repent (the ashes).

  14. At the very beginning of this string Pr. Wollenburg made the comment about fears of gnosticism. I think that as I have laid things out on this web string it has generated some thinking by those who have read what I’ve said. The comment on caring for the dead body is really *very* crucial. The response to the insight that we are to care for dead bodies might be: it’s a dead body, it doesn’t matter. But that IS the gnostic position. Interestingly, we see the gnostic position coming out in sexual matters as well, where it doesn’t matter that a person has a male or female body–the body is just a shell, the orientation (self-chosen) is what counts.

    I was at an LCMS funeral the other day and the pastor, at the end of the service, disparagingly referred to the body in the casket as “it,” as if this was not Cindy. No, this is Cindy–the horror of death is to remain standing, even as we teach that Cindy’s soul is with Christ. Part of the problem though is that many of our people have a false understanding of heaven which is really unscriptural and also uncreedal (and which leads like an inter-state highway into the gnostic position).

  15. I apologize that my wording about our embodied existence was a little weak in the previous post. It is not just that we “have” a male or female body…rather, we *are* male and female.

    We often think that the soul is the core and the body is peripheral. But we should affirm both: we are ensouled bodies, we are embodied souls…this is the will of the Creator. The reverence the Jews had for the body (in particular the bones) of the faithful dead should inform us in our own thinking.

    To continue down this thread of the importance of the body, Gilbert Meilaender–ethicist at Valparaiso University–had an excellent piece in the LCMS’ Reporter periodical discussing organ transplants and organ donation. This is the kind of thinking we need on these issues, but it will mean going upstream against many assumptions in our society and among even many Christians. I am in favor of blood donations, since blood is a “renewable resource” within our bodies, but organ donation is a different story.

    http://www.lcms.org/pages/rpage.asp?NavID=14268

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